New Komeito cozying up to DPJ?

LDP's ex-ally still on the outside but looking in as election nears


With budget allocations having cleared the Diet earlier this week, passage of the child allowance bill Friday was a stroll in the park for the Democratic Party of Japan-led coalition.

Making things all the easier was the endorsement of opposition parties, most notably New Komeito, which has been shaping an amicable relationship with the DPJ.

“Policies for children are something New Komeito has been working very hard on,” Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, the DPJ president, said earlier this month, after the two parties met over the child allowance bill.

During the meeting, the DPJ agreed to take in requests from New Komeito to provide allowances to children in child-care facilities, marking the first time the ruling bloc has revamped a bill to accommodate an opposition party since taking power last September.

“The Cabinet welcomes the fact that we can cooperate on such issues,” Hatoyama told reporters.

New Komeito, which was the junior coalition partner of the Liberal Democratic Party for a decade, experienced a devastating loss in the general election last August, as did the LDP. Since then the party backed by lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai has been showing signs of change, many of which suggest it is eager to distance itself from the struggling LDP for a fresh start.

“Ties between New Komeito and the LDP have already been reduced to nothing,” political analyst Eiken Itagaki said, adding the party is ready to move on.

A symbolic shift came earlier this month, New Komeito chief Natsuo Yamaguchi revealed that the party may not support candidates from other parties in July’s Upper House election. In the past, New Komeito would endorse LDP candidates if there were no conflicts.

“We are in the process of making every effort to rebuild our party, and cannot afford to support candidates from other parties,” Yamaguchi told reporters on March 14.

Although the New Komeito chief later said that a final decision will be made in May, such a move by the party is expected to hurt the LDP most.

An announcement earlier this month by former party President Takenori Kanzaki also signaled a change within New Komeito.

The veteran lawmaker — and one of the architects in 1999 of the coalition with the LDP — revealed that he will retire before the end of his term in the Lower House.

Meanwhile, the DPJ has also been drawing near its former opponent, with reports that DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa met with Soka Gakkai’s former president, Einosuke Akiya, in February.

That meeting prompted speculation that the two parties may be discussing election strategies for the upcoming Upper House poll.

Analysts say the DPJ’s eagerness to strengthen ties with New Komeito is predictable, as relationships with its current coalition partners — the Social Democratic Party and Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party) — have begun to fray.

Recent developments over the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma have distanced the DPJ from the pacifist SDP, while Kokumin Shinto chief Shizuka Kamei caused discord within the government this week for putting forward a plan to increase the savings account ceiling for Japan Post’s banking unit without the Cabinet’s consent.

With a string of political funds scandals hitting the Cabinet’s approval rate hard, the DPJ’s shot at securing an overall majority in the Upper House in the July poll seems doubtful.

And if the party needs help to pass legislation, choosing New Komeito as its new partner would make sense, analysts say.

“New Komeito wants to avoid being overshadowed by its coalition the way it was with the LDP, so a partnership with the DPJ won’t happen so fast. It will only take place after the Upper House election,” analyst Itagaki said.

The party could become a key player if the outcome of the election calls for a political realignment, he explained.